The Sustainability Question, Why it is So Annoying


sustainabilityThis morning, I woke up early and realized I was face-to-face with my son, Viet, who has been sleeping in the same bed with his mom and me. Looking at our sweet little baby, who was still sleeping peacefully, one tiny hand under his soft and rosy cheek, I was filled with warm fatherly thoughts. Namely: “When is this kid going to get a job and help pay for his keep?” I was tempted to wake him up and say, “You do realize that childcare for you each month is literally more than our mortgage, right? You better enjoy this while you can, little dude, because when you turn 18, you’re on your own.”

And that makes me think about the issue of sustainability of nonprofit programs. In every grant application, there is the “Sustainability Question,” which is basically, “How will you sustain this program or project when funding from the So-and-So Foundation runs out?” This seems absolutely reasonable at first glance, but honestly, it’s one of the most annoying questions we face. Most of us nonprofit professionals absolutely hate this question, and each time we see it, we have to leave our desk, go on a walk, maybe do some yoga or watch “The Daily Show,” then come back to our desk, take a deep breath, and write something  like:

“We will continue to develop our staff and board’s ability to fundraise and diversify our revenues, including building relationship with other funders, as well as cultivating support from corporate sponsors and individual donors. Our special events continue to increase in revenues, and the board is leading the effort to explore earned income through program fees and the door-to-door sales of inspiring macaroni artwork made by the children in our extended-learning program.”

All of that is basically a euphemism for “We will leave you alone and bother other people.”

“Just once,” said my ED friend, Director Maureen, “here’s what I’d like to put in response to that question:”

  • Program staff and the board will triple the amount of time they spend praying for money
  • Program participants will be asked to pray for money to provide for their services as well
  • 10% of general operating funds will be utilized to purchase Power Ball lottery tickets
  • Fund development staff will regularly consult a reputable psychic to help track which direction foundations are trending to support

Why is this question so aggravating? Why does every time I answer it, I feel like crap? I sent out an email to my ED friends in the field, asking for their thoughts, and the responses were passionate and insightful. While the issue is complex and requires a lot more time to explore, I’ll try my best to summarize my colleagues’ thoughts. Overall, the Sustainability Question is annoying and frustrating because:

Sustainability is in large part determined by funders, not nonprofits. As much as we love individual donors, many of us still rely on grants, and grants are usually small and one-year in duration. We get a bunch of one-year grants that are Frankensteined together to support programs, each one with their own set of demands and restrictions, (which I explored here in “Nonprofit Funding: Ordering a Cake and Restricting it Too.”). As one ED puts it, “Why is fidelity to the mission so highly valued and expected of nonprofit leaders and staff but funders expect to ‘sleep around?‘ One year and you’re out. [They] don’t even come back and ask.” This lumbering, unwieldy, tenuous system is the antithesis of sustainability, so to ask how we nonprofits will maintain and grow our programs within it is kind of like setting a fire and asking how we will be putting it out.

Sustainability depends on the whole organization being strong, yet funders do not like providing general operating funds. Really great programs do not magically appear out of thin air. It takes real people, people who need, like, an office to work at and healthcare for their stress and carpal tunnel and stuff. These things are critical, and yet we have to constantly fight for them. “We will cultivate relationships with individual donors and corporate sponsors, etc.” sounds great, but that requires development staff, which is fundraising, and no one likes to fund “fundraising” and “admin” expenses, because those things are so frivolous and useless.

The nonprofit model is unique in that success at carrying out our missions leads to increasing costs, not revenues. The more successful programs are, the more clients they will serve, the more staff and other expenses will increase, without a proportionate increase in support. An example is VFA’s Saturday English School (SES) program, which provides English and Math support to recent-arrival immigrant and refugee students every Saturday for three hours. Five years ago, we had 30 students show up each session. Because of how awesome the program is, we now have over 150 students each session. This is a five-fold increase in number of students served. The expenses tripled, since more students means more snacks, more teaching staff, more curriculum material, etc. But funders are not going to triple the amount they provide; if we’re lucky, they’ll renew at the same level, and we’ll have to go search for other, newer funders to provide support. This is the Program Growth Paradox, where the more a program is successful and expands, the less sustainable it is.

Other reasons cited by my ED colleagues include “we know very, very well that not every program that literally changes people’s lives for the better can become self-sustaining” (but should be funded anyway, see “Nonprofit’s Ultimate Outcome: Bringing Unicorns Back to Our World“), “I have no clue where my future funds will come from so everything I say sounds like BS” and “after five or more friggin pages of explaining just HOW MUCH you need the bucks, you are now invited to totally reverse yourself” and “I will think about this and get back to you after I have several drinks to calm down.”


Credit: James Hong, VFA’s Director of Operations

The most serious challenge with the Sustainability Question, however, is that it symptomatic of a divisive and patronizing system that perpetuates the unhealthy dichotomy of nonprofits as supplicants continually begging for spare change, and funders as benefactors. “How will YOU sustain this program? How will YOU sustain it after OUR funding that WE (might) give YOU runs out?” We now feel like the underemployed college-grad living in our parents’ basement, freeloading off of their good will, until they call us in for a serious talk about our future and demand to know what our plans are to find a job and inform us that it’s for our own good that in six months they will kick us out. We feel like Oliver Twist, who has to beg for another bowl of gruel from the…uh…that one guy, who serves…gruel…

OK, I haven’t read Oliver Twist.

The Sustainability Question is aggravating because the responsibility is overtly placed on nonprofits’ shoulders to fix problems in the world that we didn’t cause in the first place. Once the question is asked, “It immediately becomes somebody else’s problem,” writes one of my ED friends.  It feels like funders are at the end of their ropes trying to “help” us nonprofits and if we fail to sustain our work, it is all our fault. This is not working for our field.

Every once in a while I meet a program officer who used to be a nonprofit staff. “Ah,” they sometimes reminisce, “I miss being on that side of the table.” And I would say, “Tell me what it’s like on your side of the table?” And we would talk, and I would learn that being on the other side of the table has its challenges, and that it’s not all completely awesome, with ergonomic chairs and dental AND vision insurance and with each person getting access to the company unicorn to ride to important meetings.

But that makes me think, Why the heck are we on opposite sides of the table in the first place? Aren’t we all trying to solve the same problems? Why is the relationship between funders and nonprofits so adversarial? It is ineffective. We should be on the same team, where the quarterback supports the…uh, linebacker so that he can make a, um, rim shot at the…fourth inning…

All right, I don’t know anything about sports. Point is, nonprofits and funders must be equal partners, with different but symbiotic roles, and sustainability of the work must be shouldered by both parties. We nonprofits think all the time about sustainability, even without being prompted, and we will continue to build strong programs and diversify our funding. Funders, as equal partners, should provide multi-year funds, general operating funds, capacity building assistance, and help connect us to other funders and partners. And come visit the programs once a while! We must work together to figure out how to sustain and advance the work. We have to, because the needs of and challenges facing our communities are only going to increase.


More on funder-fundee relationships: The Wall of Philanthropy, Wildlings, and White Walkers


28 thoughts on “The Sustainability Question, Why it is So Annoying

  1. sheenatabraham

    This post makes me think of the relationships between nonprofits and the people we serve. The idea is for people in crisis to get to a point where they can sustain themselves. They want to be independent but often need people to walk alongside them and work together with them. Just like with funders and nonprofits, sometimes the relationship becomes adversarial as some people abuse the support (or they’ve don’t believe in themselves or realize that independence is possible for their life) and others who are ready for next steps end up paying the price.

    1. Vu

      Sheena, that’s a very interesting observation, and I have been thinking about it all day. I think the challenge with this analogy is that it illustrates the power dynamics and the fundamental philosophical weakness of the nonprofit funding structure. Funders and nonprofits should be equal partners, not supporters helping clients who are in crisis. Why are we in crisis?

      We don’t tell our clients “I’ll help you for one year, but you have to apply for it, and you have to tell me what you will do after one year when my help runs out.” It feels icky. I agree that some nonprofits abuse the system, just like some clients do, but we seem to be operating with the assumption that nonprofits take advantage by default and that society must put in safeguards to prevent this from happening.

  2. James

    I think it’s partly because the nonprofit sector, and accompanying system of funding, relies on a trickle down theory of economics. A lot of the money and donations goes to a few very large foundations and they have the responsibility of distributing it down to all of the nonprofits. Foundations want the full skills and services we offer without the willingness to pay for these skills and services. I think a bottom-up approach that empowers “ground level” organizations to be partners in setting funding priorities and collective impact is necessary to ensure sustainability.

    1. Vu

      Good observations, James. We also see the trickle down strategy in funders distributing funding to very large nonprofits, with the hopes that the funding will trickle down to smaller nonprofits, especially those serving communities of color, through subcontracting. I agree that funders and nonprofits should work together to set funding priorities.

  3. Mona T. Han

    Thanks for the great perspective on sustainability. I’m always irritated by this question in grant proposals, as it reflects the unstable landscape of nonprofit funding streams. Being a fairly new player in this field, I feel that the first cycle/year of a grant is always a “pilot”, and we learn and discover many things during that time that we’d like to adopt to make the program better. It would be nice to have multi-year funding sources, with the requirement to monitor the success/failure of the grant at the end of each year for funders to decide whether the funding should be continued or not. Most funders are either too lazy or uninterested to even follow up with the program during the cycle, and I’m not sure whether the year-end reports are taken seriously. I’d be happy to have funding for a few programs that we do well and have great results, instead of having to constantly churn up “novel” program ideas, and even if funded may go away because its a one off and we may not be able to find other funding sources.

    1. Vu

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comments, Mona. I agree completely that multi-year funding is critical for sustainability, and that high-quality existing programs should be supported instead of the constant chasing of “innovative” ideas.

  4. Nancy White

    This is also what I experience in the international development sector. One of my colleagues keeps telling me that we need to look beyond the funder/fundee model and look at cooperative models == vs dependency models. I keep trying to wrap my head around this in a practical way and I’ve had to borrow some business language (with some trepidation as there is baggage) around finding intersecting value propositions. Sheena’s observation about the people we “serve” and their needs, motivations. Funders needs. And the organizations’ needs themselves (including needs of staff/volunteers, etc.) Lately I’ve been working with these “stakeholders” (such interesting terms we use!) to map needs and value proposition and look for ANY intersections that stimulate people to want to “invest” in each other. Not just money. Time, attention. This is getting some resonance. (Kinda hard to express in a wee bit of text while I’m admittedly multitasking. Shame on me.)

    1. Vu

      Nancy, thank you for the insights. I think many of us can agree that the dependency/beggars/benefactors model is not working. Nonprofits and funders must cooperate. I’d love to hear more about what you discovered in your mapping project.

      1. Nancy White

        Vu, what we find is that people are surprised when a) they find their value props are NOT aligned, or b) when the things they thought the other party didn’t care about, they actually did. One of the keys to this process has been to literally MAP them out visually together. The conversation is what matters!

      2. Vu

        Thanks, Nancy. It’s this communication, though, that is a challenge. There seems to be a wall between funders and nonprofits.

  5. Jeanne

    I love this post – I just left a non-profit because the board is stuck on the idea that the organization should be self-sustaining and keep throwing around terms such a profit center. Give me a break, there is no museum anywhere in the world that is a profit center, nor should it be. While I do agree that non-profits can be efficient, it makes me crazy that a board will put all of the burden on staff to be profitable rather than go out into the community and raise money by working harder to cultivate donors. And it has been so frustrating to be rejected by a funder and then have board members tell you that applying for grants is a waste of time because there is not enough return on investment. In fact, for me, the sustainability question from foundations and governments, is really sending the message to the organization that they don’t want to support your work and I believe it sends a message to individual donors that our work is not valuable enough to be supported either by government or individuals and contributes directly to the unsustainability of smaller non-profits.

    1. Vu

      Thanks, Jeanne, that does sound very frustrating. There are very few nonprofits that are self-sustaining through business ventures. The majority of us will rely on a combination of cultivating individual donors and begging foundations, government, and corporations. It’s hard for us to be sustainable when so much of our time is spent begging for funds.

  6. Claire

    Program staff and the board will triple the amount of time they spend praying for money

    Since we rent our space from church, I have gone upstairs from our basement office up to the chapel many times to make some petitions to our patron saint, Teresa of Avila, and to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. I do this despite being Jewish. I figure a little extra juice on the Other Side can’t hurt us, and maybe will help in the end.

    1. Vu

      lol, thank you, Claire. That’s a great advantage of being in a church. Maybe that should be one of our sustainability strategies: Relocate to a religious space to facilitate more efficient prayers for funding.

  7. LIahann

    I’m considering responding on my next grant: “How will you sustain this program or project when funding from the So-and-So Foundation runs out?”


  8. Aparna Rae (@appyrae)

    I don’t love or truly hate the sustainability question – it’s worth asking, and a good opportunity for reflection if it weren’t so repetitive.

    The lack of monogamy comes largely from a desire on the funders part to stay on top of trends and fund what’s sexy. The programs that have some of the greatest impact e.g. Sat English Classes are the opposite of trendy or sexy. Same with general operating funds.

    It’s time for nonprofit organizations to collectively approach funders to discuss the future of grant based funding, technical support, and being on the same side of the table. We need to break out of a loop where npos cower and meet demands, often ridiculous to get a few pennies to make ends meet.

    1. Vu

      Thanks, Aparna, for the great insights. Yes, this need to fund newer, sexier programs is damaging. I agree, we do need to collectively approach funders and work together to advance the field.

  9. Nancy L. Seibel

    Most nonprofits (not all) serve people with little money. Therefore expecting them to be like businesses and be self sustaining doesn’t quite make sense now does it? As a matter of fact lots of businesses don’t manage to self sustain either. I’m not in the nonprofit world anymore and as a solopreneur have to be sustainable. But I am running a tiny business and it makes sense to expect I have to bring in the dollars to keep going.

    And donor support? Great but every nonprofit is out there seeking donors and I don’t know of any that are able to sustain their programs just on donations, even those with broad-based and presumably better-off constituents. But. On the other hand, if funders did what we wished for and provided long term support, how would new programs and organizations ever get supported? We’d have to have a funding system for supporting start ups and innovation as well as one for sustaining ongoing programs that are showing results. Wait! That might be a good idea!!

    1. Vu

      Nancy, thank you for the thoughtful comment. And what a great idea: Funders who sustain great programs, and others who invest in innovative new ones!

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  15. LiveLaughLove

    I am about to start budgeting for next year and my crystal ball broke! The Magic 8 ball app on my phone is gonna have to stand in, but I have never used it before. We are just gonna have to risk it though.

  16. Sherry S. Jennings

    Funders as equal partners is an interesting concept. The problem is managing that relationship and the accompanying expectations to tell you what to do. As Jeanne noted, it is difficult to keep the board out of operational matters, let alone a funder who believes you have a “relationship”. Wouldn’t it be a bit like having multiple wives? 🙂 That said, a solution exists for the board micromanagement problem (governing rather than managing)…maybe a similar solution could be applied to the funder/nonprofit problem.

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